Leah Rankin | Staff Writer
In 2006, Ruth Ezell, a television producer in St. Louis, aired a documentary about world-renowned soprano Christine Brewer, calling her “the antithesis of the stereotypical prima donna.”
At 6:15 p.m. tonight in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, the Grammy Award-winning opera star will perform alongside her longtime colleague, pianist Craig Rutenberg, in a free All-American concert celebrating the July 4 holiday. Each musician will also conduct two master classes, which will be open to the public for a small fee, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday in McKnight Hall.
Brewer’s success was a gradual process. Growing up in the little town of Lebanon, Ill., she listened to her mother sing jazz and gospel music. She said she believed her life was the life of every ordinary family as she and her mother rehearsed for recitals and concerts.
“My mom was never really trained as a singer or had any kind of professional musical training, but she truthfully had one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard,” Brewer said. “She had not just a beautiful voice, but she had this beautiful way of expressing her singing. I think that’s one of the main things that inspired me.”
Both of Brewer’s parents encouraged her to perform music, but Brewer couldn’t sing in tune. She remembered people telling her that she had a good voice, but that she could not sing as well as her mother.
So instead, Brewer picked up the violin. She said she excelled at the instrument and found that she gained excellent ear training from playing in recitals and in orchestras. Brewer still sang as well, but as a member of local choruses and church choirs.
It wasn’t long before conductors asked her to sing small solos and train as an understudy for operatic roles. Brewer, who had gone to a small Methodist college for music education and was now teaching school, was getting noticed.
“There were people who actually took that next step before I did,” Brewer said. “It just happened so gradually that there are still times that I think somebody’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘We’re sorry, Ms. Brewer, you can’t do this job. We just realized you don’t have training in the conservatory. You’re an imposter.’”
In 1990, Brewer sang her first lead role as Ellen Orford in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
As her career took off, Brewer continued to portray strong women on stage. She cites Isolde from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Leonora from Beethoven’s Fidelio as some of her favorite opera heroines.
“As I think about my favorites, they all tend to be these strong women,” Brewer said. “Maybe it’s what I aspire to be and what I hope that I am.”
Brewer’s career led her to perform in major opera companies around the world. She has performed next to conductors like Michael Tilson Thomas, Sir Simon Rattle, Pierre Boulez and Christoph von Dohnányi.
Her voice, which one critic called “molten gold,” earned Brewer stage time at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera.
“Christine is a wonderful lady, and she was born with this incredible voice in her throat,” Rutenberg said. “She’s an incredible musician, a good communicator and to be on the stage with her is truly a gift.”
But the soprano never left behind her first passion of teaching. Throughout her travels, she stays in touch with a sixth-grade class in Marissa, Ill. She brings a stuffed bear with her and photographs the bear with all the famous conductors and musicians she has met around the world.
When she is in town, she visits the class and said she is always pleasantly surprised at the excitement kids have when she teaches them about classical music.
Brewer is also an avid recording artist. She received a Grammy Award in 2006 for her work on the album “William Bolcom — Songs of Innocence and Experience.”
She said she enjoys recording her work because she has always loved listening to the recordings of great opera singers that she was never able to see in a live performance.
“I think it’s very important to always strive to leave your best mark, whether it be a recording, or a sixth-grade classroom, or in a concert hall,” Brewer said. “As my voice teacher said, ‘Sing with the voice you have today. Communicate what you know today with your life experience.’ I try to do that with my recordings as well.”
Today’s concert will feature music that Brewer and Rutenberg have performed many times before, including works by composers such as Gian Carlo Menotti, Alan Smith and Virgil Thompson.
Rutenberg, who works as the Head of Music Administration at the Metropolitan Opera, often accompanies singers as both a pianist and a voice coach.
He said he loves the added dimension of words above already expressive instrumental music and, therefore, he works to support what the singer is trying to communicate through those words.
“One of my teachers was Geoffrey Parsons,” Rutenberg said, “and he always used to say that, ‘What I try to do is put down a carpet of the most beautiful and supportive sound I can for whomever I happen to be playing.’ That, for me, is an accompanist.”
Rutenberg offered some joking advice to students who aspire to sing with great opera companies:
“We’re so incredibly lucky to be doing what we do, so shut up and stop complaining,” he said.
Donations for today’s performance benefit the Chautauqua Women’s Club Scholarship Fund.